The teenage pitching sensation who's putting French baseball on the map

August 23rd, 2023
Design by Christopher Rice. Photos courtesy Ben Couvreur.

Playing in the final group game of the 2022 U-18 European Championships, France needed a victory to advance. It was a difficult task against the eventual champions, Spain.

After falling behind, 4-2, in the bottom of the fourth, France couldn't afford to give up any more runs. So, manager Gerardo Leroux turned to his big lefty fireballer, Ben Couvreur. Couvreur had already pitched against Lithuania a few days earlier, spinning a perfect inning with three strikeouts. But there's one thing you need to know: While everyone else was 17 or 18 years old, Couvreur was just 15 and was facing the best European ballplayers in the biggest game of his life.

If he had any nerves, he didn't show them. Though France would eventually lose -- and Couvreur would take the L -- the left-hander threw 3 2/3 innings, gave up three hits and one unearned run and struck out seven. It's a game that stands out in Couvreur's memory.

"Playing in the Under-18 Euros against one of the top teams, I had a really dominant relief outing in a game that went extra innings," Couvreur, 16, said through Owen Ozanich, his manager with the Barracudas de Montpellier and arguably the greatest pitcher in French baseball history, who translated.

"We lost, but it was one of those moments where not only in Mexico [where the tournament was held], but here in Europe, people started to recognize me and my performance."

Manager Owen Ozanich, left, and 16-year-old Ben Couvreur after a Montpellier Barracudas game.

Two weeks later, he was back on the mound and one-upping himself. Playing in the more age-appropriate U-15 Baseball World Cup, Couvreur helped France win their first game ever at the tournament with a five-inning no-hitter of Guam. Couvreur struck out seven and walked three in the run-rule victory.

In his next game against Colombia, Couvreur took the loss, but pitched 5 2/3 innings with six more Ks and four unearned runs on the ledger. Though France finished 11th in the competition, Couvreur was impressive enough on the mound to earn recognition for posting the lowest ERA.

It's an exciting time for French baseball. Last month, Mathias LaCombe became just the second French-born and -developed player to be drafted when he was selected by the White Sox in the 12th round. A veteran of the French men's national team, there's hope that LaCombe could be the arm that helps launch the French team to a brighter future, perhaps following in the steps of Great Britain or the Czech Republic, who not only reached the World Baseball Classic this past March, but secured places in the 2026 tournament, as well.

"Mathias and Ben are our future in terms of the qualifier for the World Baseball Classic," Boris Rothermundt, the technical director for the national team, said. "So, we've got four years to build that team around with them and around other players that have either university experience or professional experience. If we qualify for the next World Baseball Classic, that will help us a lot for sure."

With LaCombe now in the White Sox organization, it's the young Couvreur, who is drawing attention from big league teams and rumors of a six-figure signing bonus. After coming up through the local teams in Contes and Nice, Couvreur headed to the national baseball academies in Montpellier and Toulouse, where he has made his breakout.

"What I heard from the scout's perspective, is that when they come and see him, he doesn't look like a foreign player," Rothermundt said. "He looks like an American because of his maturity on the mound. Seems easy. His mechanics are fluid. So, they're all excited because he's throwing hard and left-handed with smooth mechanics and that projects a lot for them. They say they're really surprised about how he acts on the mound, off the mound, in his preparation. He's very professional and his attitude on the mound is very professional. This is what stands out to them."

It's an assessment that matches Couvreur's own impression of his talents.

"I think my best quality is my mental focus and my ability to stay locked in during games," Couvreur said. "Where I want to improve -- and especially where my coaches want me to improve -- are my mechanics to try to get a more smooth delivery."

Couvreur on the mound for France.

On the day we spoke, the Barracudas had just wrapped up a doubleheader. Couvreur had entered in relief, pitching four innings, striking out six and giving up one run. It's an impressive performance no matter how you slice it, but looks even better when you remember that Couvreur is still a teenager and is playing against men 10, 15, perhaps 20 years his senior, with import players from around the world taking part in the league as well.

His season numbers are equally impressive: Like many youngsters, Couvreur struggles with his command at times, but he's struck out 70 batters in 43 2/3 innings while holding batters to a .147 average.

"They don't scare me," Couvreur said about facing the more experienced players. "But I realize there's a big age difference. I just try to step up my game and get them out just like I would anyone else."

Now, though, Couvreur is looking ahead to helping Montpellier win the French Division I title. They'll face the Toulouse Tigers next weekend in the semifinals. From there, Couvreur's future is open. The left-hander with the Clayton Kershaw glove -- "That's the GOAT. I try to be like Clayton Kershaw," Couvreur said about the Dodgers ace -- dreams of bigger things in the future. He wants to help the French national team succeed on the world stage. He wants to play in college and then sign a professional contract.

That last step could come as soon as next year, should the rumors prove true.

"I see myself right now as a power pitcher," Couvreur said, "but eventually as someone that can evolve more on the mound as the level of play gets harder and harder."

"For Ben, it's just the start," Rothermundt said. He points to the impact that Tony Parker's NBA career had on France's basketball program and hopes that LaCombe and Couvreur could be the arms that reach the Major Leagues and change the future of French baseball, too.

"All the attention is on him at the academy and I hope it doesn't affect his way of building himself as a man," Rothermundt said. "I don't think so. I think he's more and more confident about what he does. He knows he has a chance and that's what we root for."